The 10-5 Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the 4-11 Atlanta Falcons on Sunday, and we're counting down the hours to the 1:00 p.m. kickoff at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa. After a week of preparation, here's what it all comes down to:
5 TAMPA BAY PLAYERS TO WATCH
WR Mike Evans. Everyone will be watching Evans on Sunday, including the Atlanta defenders who surrendered six catches for 110 yards to the Bucs' receiver two weeks ago, and who know that Tampa Bay is motivated to get the ball into Evans' hands. The seventh-year receiver enters the season final needing just 40 more yards to be the first player in NFL history to open his career with seven straight 1,000-yard receiving seasons. Though attaining this record isn't a bigger priority for the Buccaneers on Sunday than winning the game, it is on the list of Week 17 priorities. As Offensive Coordinator Byron Leftwich suggested, the Bucs will just let Evans play his usual game and that will likely be enough to get the record. Evans fared well against Atlanta's rookie cornerback A.J. Terrell two weeks ago; in addition to his six grabs Evans also induced a double pass-interference/facemask call on Terrell that set up one of the Bucs' touchdowns in their wild second-half comeback. Last season, Evans spent the last three weeks on injured reserve after suffering a hamstring injury and didn't get to pad to his excellent totals for 2019. This year, Evans seems to be picking up steam as the regular-season draws to a close, which is good news given that the Buccaneers will be playing beyond Week 17 this time around. The Bucs would love to take a red-hot Evans into the start of their playoff run.
OLB Jason Pierre-Paul. The Buccaneers and Steelers are the only two teams to feature three different defenders with at least eight sacks. However, the Bucs' defense will not have that full trio on the field against Atlanta. Both inside linebacker Devin White (9.0 sacks) and outside linebacker Shaquil Barrett (8.0 sacks) will be sidelined after being placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list on Friday. That leaves the team's leading sack artist, Pierre-Paul (9.5) to lead the charge as the Buccaneers try to pressure Ryan. Pierre-Paul generally plays the vast majority of the team's defensive snaps in the best of situations but he will likely not want to come off the field at all on Sunday with his fellow pass-rushers missing. The 11th-year veteran needs just a half-sack more to hit double digits for the second time in his three years as a Buccaneer and the fourth time in his career overall. Pierre-Paul's game has gone beyond sacks, however, as he has thoroughly enjoyed playing as an outside linebacker in Todd Bowles' schemes. Pierre-Paul has 52 tackles, six tackles for loss, 14 QB hits, two interceptions, six passes defensed, four forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. He has been responsible for many of the Buccaneers' splash plays on defense this season and the team needs him more than ever this Sunday.
RB Ronald Jones II. Jones missed the last game against the Falcons, but not because of the fractured left pinkie finger he had sustained the week before in a win over Minnesota. Rather, he was unavailable because he was on the COVID list, which has kept him out of the last two games and, crucially, kept him off the practice field where he could demonstrate that he could still be effective with a brace on his left hand. Jones has had that opportunity this week and appears to be on pace to make his return in the rematch with Atlanta on Sunday. Before his injury, Jones had rushed for a team-high 900 yards and averaged 5.0 yards per carry while scoring six touchdowns. The Bucs would like to get Jones back up to full speed before the playoffs and it sounds like they will try to accomplish that in the regular-season finale. Said Arians: "We need to get him going. It's a totally different speed than in practice. He's looked great in practice. He's catching the ball really okay with that thing on his hand, kind of like Chris [Godwin] did. It was a struggle at first but he's getting better at it. But no, we need his explosiveness out there and hopefully we'll get him a ton this week."
ILB Kevin Minter. While Pierre-Paul will be carrying the load for the Bucs' pass rush with White and Barrett out, it is Minter who is likely to be the direct replacement on the field for White. That's what the Buccaneers did early in the 2019 season when White missed three games and most of a fourth with a knee injury. Minter stepped in next to Lavonte David and recorded 30 tackles, two tackles for loss, a quarterback hit and two passes defensed in that span. In Week 10 at Carolina, Minter played exactly one defensive snap but produced a sack on a perfect blitz; you won't find that in his stat line because the play was erased by a roughing-the-passer penalty but it was still an indication of Minter's ability to invade the backfield. Still, White will be difficult to replace as he is the team's leading tackler in addition to all of his sacks and he is also the defensive play-caller. The Bucs re-signed Minter after last season because he has a lot of NFL experience (106 games, 46 starts ) and specifically experience playing inside linebacker on a Bruce Arians team. He started all 32 games for the Cardinals in 2015-16 and racked up 175 tackles, four sacks and 17 QB hits over those two seasons.
TE Rob Gronkowski. Gronkowski has been heating up in the season's second half, another good sign for the playoff-bound Buccaneers, and as quarterback Tom Brady noted earlier this week, he is the kind of player teammates trust to make big plays at the biggest moments. Last week in Detroit, Brady's first of four first-half touchdowns went to Gronkowski, who beat a defender and went full-extension to pull in the 33-yard score. He had another 25-yard TD catch on a Blaine Gabbert pass early in the second half. Earlier this week, Gronkowski said he has thoroughly enjoyed his first Tampa Bay season after coming out of a brief, one-season retirement, and it has shown, both in his play and his post-touchdown exuberance. Arians, as Buccaneer fans know, likes to have his quarterback go deep when he can, and Brady has had a deep-ball resurgence in recent weeks. He has definitely shown an affinity for his long-time Patriots teammates and the two could be a force to be reckoned with in the playoffs. In the meantime, Gronkowski will try to add a few more big plays to his regular-season ledger before heading on to the elimination games.
4 STATS THAT MATTER
- 71.4%/66.7%, 52.8%. The Buccaneers would seem to have a clear advantage in the red zone in Sunday's matchup. The first pair of numbers above show the matchup of the Bucs' touchdown percentage on offense in the red zone and the Falcons' number on defense in the same category. The Bucs rank sixth on offense while the Falcons are 28th on defense. Atlanta is also tied for 26th on offense with a 52.8% touchdown rate in the red zone. However, the Falcons actually outperformed the Bucs in the red zone two weeks ago (3-4 vs. 3-5) and over their last two games the Falcons are 5-6 on offense and 4-7 on defense.
- 47, 110 and 174. The Buccaneers rank third in the NFL with 47 sacks on defense, third with 110 QB hits and second with 174 quarterback pressures. One more sack will give the Bucs their second-highest single-season total as a team, after their record 55 QB takedowns in 2000. Tampa Bay will have to look for some new ways to apply pressure with White and Barrett, however, as those two have combined for 17.0 sacks, 32 QB hits and 59 pressures.
- 65.1%/63.1%, 93.7/95.0. The Buccaneers and Falcons are the first and third-most pass-happy teams in the NFL, as represented by their 65.1% and 63.1% rate of passing plays per offensive snap. In addition, the Falcons are only rushing for 93.7 yards, with the Bucs just a bit better at 95.0. When these two teams met two weeks ago they combined for 746 gross passing yards. Expect to see more of the same on Sunday.
- 265.9, 65.4%, 39-16. Atlanta QB Matt Ryan will play his 26th game against the Buccaneers on Sunday, which will tie for his most action against any NFL club. He has mostly enjoyed the first 25 games, averaging 265.9 passing yards per outing, with a completion rate of 65.4% and a TD-INT ratio of 39-16. That adds up to a career 95.6 passer rating against Tampa Bay. Two weeks ago, Ryan completed 34 of 49 passes for 356 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. That resulted in a 110.6 passer rating, marking the 11th game in which Ryan has topped 100 against the Buccaneers.
3 LINEUP NOTES
- As noted above, the Buccaneers had to place Shaquil Barrett and Devin White on injured reserve. Second-year man Anthony Nelson, who recorded his first career sack last week in Detroit, has been the primary third man in the Bucs' outside linebacker action and will presumably fill in for Barrett. Veteran linebacker Kevin Minter stepped in last season when White missed three games with a knee injury and will likely fill in again.
- The Falcons didn't have star wideout Julio Jones the last time they faced the Bucs, in Week 15, due to a hamstring injury. Jones also didn't play last week and on Friday was ruled out for the season finale. Russell Gage has picked up the slack in Jones's absence. Also, Atlanta will be without center Alex Mack, who last week missed a start for the first time in his five years with the Falcons due to a concussion. Mack had returned to practice in limited fashion to start this week but will now be unavailable after being placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list on Thursday.
- Cornerback Carlton Davis could return after missing last week's groin injury but he is listed as doubtful on the injury report and will be a game-day decision. If he has to sit out a second straight game, the Buccaneers would continue to rely on Ross Cockrell as their third cornerback alongside Jamel Dean and Sean Murphy-Bunting. That trio did well in the second half of the Week 15 game in Atlanta after Davis initially suffered that injury.
2 CHALLENGES PRESENTED BY THE FALCONS
Ryan is throwing for 287.7 yards per game, 15 yards higher than his career average, and the Falcons' passing attack ranks fifth in the NFL. Ryan has been sacked 40 times and Atlanta is dealing with some upheaval on its offensive line but the veteran quarterback has actually been excellent when throwing under pressure this season. According to Radar360, Ryan leads the NFL with a 95.1 passer rating when pressured. Atlanta's defense has struggled in many categories but is fifth against the run and 11th in goal-to-go situations. The Falcons' kicker, Younghoe Koo, is going to the Pro Bowl and has made 35 of 37 field goal attempts, including all eight from beyond 50 yards. Here is a specific challenge on each side of the ball the Buccaneers will face on Sunday.
The Buccaneers are hoping to do a better job of containing breakout-star receiver Calvin Ridley, who caught 10 passes for 163 yards and a touchdown against them in Week 15. Arians says that begins with getting pressure on Ryan early in the game. The Buccaneers will be better prepared to face Ridley if cornerback Carlton Davis can play; on several occasions over the last two years, Tampa Bay coaches have chosen to use Davis to shadow the other team's clear number-one receiver, such as the Saints' Michael Thomas in Week One, and the strategy has worked well. However, Davis missed the second half of the last Bucs-Falcons tilt with a groin injury that kept him out of the second half plus the Week 16 game in Detroit. Davis is considered a game day decision this week. With Julio Jones largely hampered by hamstring issues this season, Ridley has emerged as the Falcons' clear top target, with 82 catches for 1,322 yards and nine touchdowns. The third-year player out of Alabama is averaging 16.1 yards per attempt and is one of the most frequent runners of deep routes in the NFL this season, according to NFL Next Gen Stats.
Grady Jarrett is going back to the Pro Bowl (a virtual one, in this case) for a second straight year despite recording just 4.0 sacks so far. That's not a flaw in the system, though, because Jarrett is significantly more disruptive than his raw numbers show. He does have 18 quarterback hits, which is eight more than anyone else on the Atlanta defense. Moreover, the pressure he applies up the middle helps create opportunities for the Falcons' edge rusher. Jarrett plays with a nonstop motor and is incredibly competitive on every snap. He also very strong in the run game and a key reason the Falcons are only allowing 105.8 yards per game. While he's hard to run at directly, Jarrett also makes an impact on plays run away from him with his relentless backside pursuit. Jarrett just broke through in the Pro Bowl voting last year but the Bucs have known for years what a force he can be in the middle.
1 KEY THOUGHT FROM BRUCE ARIANS AT THE END OF THE WEEK
On the Falcons getting early pressure on Tom Brady in Week 15 and if the Bucs' offense is hard to stop when it is keeping the pressure off Brady:
"I don't think there's any doubt, for sure. And [we want to] run the ball effectively and keep him clean. When we've done that, we've been pretty solid offensively. That and eliminating penalties. We missed two blitzes on third down that we've picked up all season. That was more technical error, technique, then it was assignment. We fixed that in the second quarter and didn't really have any problem with it again. But they have a great blitz package and when they bring it they bring a lot of speed. Deion Jones, when he's coming that's a really fast blitzer. They've got really good pressures but we did not handle the blitz very well on a couple third downs."